The Secret to Keeping Frustrated Students Engaged

Physics Tutor Adam Love shares his insights on how to get students excited about science.

Adam Love is a science tutor living in New York City, who specializes in physics and calculus. An MIT grad and a veteran tutor, I sat down with Adam in Union Square to get his thoughts on how to get students engaged, and how to turn a student's frustration with a difficult problem set into an asset.

It’s very easy to present information to students who are engaged, but for students who are not as engaged, I spend a lot of time making them aware of that fact—that I can sit here and tell you as much as I know, but you won’t absorb it unless you say ‘Yes.’


Why did you become a tutor? What do you most enjoy about it?

I love seeing somebody go from a state of confusion to at a certain point, having the “Aha” moment. That moment to me is amazing. The ability to see that over and over again in a student is the best reward. I get to see that all the time, so I feel very lucky because I am able to have that immediate feedback. That’s what I work for. And it’s great to see a student progress over longer stretches of time; I’ve had students come to me in pretty bad situations.

I had one girl who was almost failing out of school [when we started] because she was so far behind and didn’t know where to begin. We progressed over the school year working on the idea of not looking at the overwhelming weight of this problem, but just saying, "This is do-able. We can do at least this tiny, little bit. And from there, we can keep going." Now, she is a successful engineering student at RPI. It was amazing to go through that experience with her.

I had chosen physics initially because I thought it was the basis of knowledge. And I was interested in science in general so I thought, ‘Why not go to the source?’ [But] the thing I was really interested in [was] how somebody is even able to create the science. And that led me to want to learn about learning.

How did you get into science education? Why are you passionate about science?

I was always interested in science, from a very young age. [As a kid,] I’d be picking up rocks and looking at bugs underneath them, that sort of thing. I always thought I was going to be a scientist. I liked everything: biology, chemistry, physics, and I took that with me to MIT. You’re required to take two years of physics, two years of calculus, introduction to chemistry, introduction to biology, and I loved all that stuff. Physics was my thing, and the reason I loved physics is because I thought it was the most basic of the sciences. Everything else seemed to be built on top of that. That’s why I had chosen physics initially, because I thought it was the basis of knowledge. And I was interested in science in general so I thought, “Why not go to the source?”

My junior I branched off [from physics] and tried to take as many cognitive science classes as I could, which was how I got interested in education. I took this love for this idea of a basic science, for a foundation of knowledge, and instead of science as a whole, taking it to almost a smaller level. As I was learning more about science and the history of science, I came to realize that the basis isn’t physics—it’s people. People are the things that are making this theories, that are discovering these laws. So how does a person work such that they can make and learn these things? How do you make a theory from observing your environment. That was the thing I was really interested in: how somebody is even able to create the science. And that led me to want to learn about learning.

It’s always great to have a challenge, to stretch your brain a little bit. I always say frustration is good because that means that your brain is working. If you’re not frustrated with a problem that means that you’re not looking at it as intensely as you should be.

Do you have a specialty within the sciences or can you handle it all?

Physics is the thing that people call me for the most, usually for a class or an AP test, or the SAT II. But I do pretty much any math and any science. Anything up to senior-year engineering classes, or differential equations—I don’t want to do those anymore. Then again, I was teaching a student this year through Reach Prep. She got into MIT and was taking an online multi-variable calculus class and she didn’t have anybody who could really help her with that. It was tough getting back into it, but I actually surprised myself. This was stuff I wasn’t great at the first time I’d looked at it [as a student], but coming back and looking at with fresh eyes, I was able to teach it.

It’s always great to have a challenge, to stretch your brain a little bit. I always say frustration is good because that means that your brain is working. If you’re not frustrated with a problem that means that you’re not looking at it as intensely as you should be. I always encourage frustration in my students—it sounds counter-intuitive and a little mean, but I am nice in everything else that I do with students.

Physics is a famously difficult and intimidating subject. How do you keep your students motivated and engaged when they don't get something on the first try?

It’s difficult sometimes to inspire motivation in somebody. A lot of learning is paying attention, and if you’re not paying attention, it doesn’t matter how good the person teaching you is because it’s not going to sink in. So I have a lot of ways of trying to generate interest, and those are the things that are the most difficult. It’s very easy to present information to students who are engaged, but for students who are not as engaged, I spend a lot of time making them aware of that fact--that I can sit here and tell you as much as I know, but you won’t absorb it unless you say Yes. They need to say, "I am going to put my mental effort into making this work and making myself better."

When it comes to somebody who just doesn’t want to engage, there are a bunch of ways that I try to chip away at that. It’s a defense mechanism ... They’re putting up a blocker in order to avoid this thing that makes them anxious because they’re afraid to fail.

Tell me about some of those techniques to maintain student interest. How do you keep things fresh?

If I feel like the student is just bored, or their not engaged because they’re just not interested, oftentimes will veer a little bit off the specific topic and talk a little bit about the big picture. Why is this interesting? Because it's connected to all these other ideas.

For students who are reluctant because they just don’t want to do the work--for one reason or another, there are always those students. When it comes to somebody who just doesn’t want to engage, there are a bunch of ways that I try to chip away at that. It’s a defense mechanism [for the student.] They’re putting up a blocker in order to avoid this thing that makes them anxious  because they’re afraid to fail. And I use humor, [and I'm honest]. I’ve said, “Look I get it. Work is hard and stupid. I know that. I’m not here to make it so that you don’t have to do anything. I’m here to help you find the solution that you need, but I can’t make it go away. I want this to be done too. I want you to be relaxed.”

Everybody is tired sometimes. You don’t want to do something right now. A part of my job is saying, “Let’s do this. Let’s make this go away. And you’re going to feel so much better after this is done.”

What you wish students would do more of? Less of?

"More of" is pretty easy: work outside of what we do together. The students that don’t get the most out of [tutoring] expect that just an hour a week with me is enough. But you’re not going to learn anything unless you are engaging yourself. You have to make your brain work in order for it to absorb things. And doing something once a week, your brain is not going to absorb the material. It may reach the exterior, but a lot of the time, the information just bounces off. That’s the biggest thing. My best students have a very specific attitude about what they want to get out of our sessions and what they’re willing to do outside of our work together.

Do you have any advice for students or parents seeking a tutor?

There are so many lists of tutors that are online. I think that matching and finding the right tutor is very important. I think you can assume that anybody who’s a tutor in a certain subject knows as much as they need to know in order to teach that subject, but in terms of engagement. The ability to communicate something in a way that your kid is going to both understand and want to engage in. A good match between a [student] and a tutor is the most important thing in determining whether or not that [student] is going to be successful [and] improve. In terms of price, you’re paying more for a reason.

If you were to hire a tutor, what subject would you want to learn?

Hm. I’m pretty good on science … probably a design skill. I’d say something like programming. It’s something that I know is very important. A lot of my friends are computer scientists, or use computer science in some part of their job. It’s something that I know is very powerful, but I can’t use it very well. I’ve got the basics, but not in a way to really utilize it to improve my life. I’d like to do that.

To get in touch with Adam, you can visit his profile here. Adam has a dedicated group of fans, and his services are in high demand, so message him today to schedule a tutoring session before his schedule fills up for the summer.